Dan Giusti ( Tom Karst )

LA QUINTA, Calif. — Once acclaimed as a top chef for the elite, Dan Giusti has a vision to bring better food to students.

Giusti spoke Jan. 16 at the United Fresh Produce Association’s 2019 FreshStart conference.

Former head chef of what has been called the “best restaurant in the world,” Noma in Denmark, Giusti is founder of Brigaid, a firm that partners with school districts to provide a standard training program for foodservice staff. The training covers safety, sanitation, efficiency and basic cooking skills to ultimately add scratch recipes to their menu, according to the firm’s website.

Serving 4,000 students each day in six schools last school year, Brigaid added six schools in the Bronx this year.

“For me, it has always been about taking care of people through food and making people feel better about themselves,” he said. 

After leaving the elite restaurant scene where people would take a private jet to eat lunch at Noma, Giusti said he wanted to bring the expertise of chefs to schools.

“I was really bringing this full circle, kind of taking away ‘school’ from school food,” he said.

He began his efforts with a school district in New London, Conn., a town of about 45,000 two-and-a-half hours north of New York City.

The challenge of creating recipes and meals that meet nutritional guidelines within budget constraints isn’t easy, he said.

The mindset of pleasing the kids is essential.

“When you work in a restaurant, you are usually kind of doing it for your own gratification and you’re trying to prove yourself, make yourself feel good about it,” Guisti said. “It now has nothing to do with you. It has nothing to do with anyone outside the kids.”

Nutrition alone is not enough, he said. Food served in schools must taste good and be thoughtfully prepared.

“There is a lot of (school) food that goes into the garbage and food not eaten cannot be nutritious,” he said.

Help needed

Giusti said produce vendors can help improve the quality of produce served at schools. It is disappointing to see the low-quality food showing up at some schools, he said.

“It is like we are systematically ruining all these things for kids because what you’re getting are low-quality things,” he said.
Students may decide they don’t like apples or other produce because they only experience low quality, he said.

He said schools need help in identifying buying opportunities for high-quality fruits and vegetables

“Surely, there’s times when (you can) say, ‘Look, we’re gonna have a good price for squash, and that’s going to be for about three months, because this was the market,” he said. “I’ve never had a long conversation with anyone who’s really tried to help us think through our price points.”

There are more opportunities for produce marketers to take advantage of the consistent business that school foodservice delivers.

“I came here to speak today as an opportunity,” he said, adding he is looking for ways to collaborate with produce companies to bring more fruits and vegetables to schools. “I think it’s a big opportunity for everyone.”